Innovations – Technology and Stories from Pro Tour: Austin

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Wednesday, October 21st – Patrick Chapin recounts adventures with Brian Kibler, Gabriel Nassif, and the rest of his playtest team leading up to Pro Tour: Austin, with a focus on the cutting edge technology they developed for the new Extended format. He fits in thoughts on new Standard Control decks, and explains why he picks Goblin Shortcutter over Rampaging Baloth in Zendikar draft.

Last week I participated in Pro Tour: Austin. Gabriel Nassif, Mark Herberholz, Paul Rietzl, Matt Sperling, Michael Jacob, Ben Rubin, David Williams, Brian Kibler, and I rented a house and spent the week before the tournament getting in some last-minute testing and running dozens of drafts, while kicking it with Lan D Ho, Eric Atwood, Dan “D-Bird” Burdick, and a host of others.

Our group had been discussing Extended ideas pretty much since the end of U.S. Nationals, and looking back, I am confident that our preparation was among the most thorough in the event. While we did work on Hypergenesis, Martyr, Dredge, Tron, AIR, RestoreBalance, Bant, Fae, NLU, Rock, Hivepact, and Dark Depths, among others, we ended up primarily interested in Punishing Fires, which was particularly interesting given how few other people were talking about it (in conjunction with Grove of the Burnwillows).

Over the course of the week, Ben Rubin asked me a series of questions about the Gifts decks that I would end up playing, trying to learn as much as he could behind the theory of the deck. I explained that Heezy, Nassif, and I had been experimenting with various combinations of Thopter-Sword (Thopter Foundry plus Sword of the Meek), Dark Depths plus Vampire Hexmage, and Punishing Fires. One of the most interesting things we found was that just about every Blue control deck was absolutely destroyed by Punishing Fires plus Grove.

We found that we were able to make decks that were slanted against Zoo and Combo, relying on the Punishing Fires combo to trump the Blue decks, which seemed to give us a nice advantage with little use of space in the deck. After much testing, Ben did not think that the Gifts deck was for him, and could not help but think about his best results coming from his various Zoo builds. We brainstormed ideas and he decided to try applying the Punishing Fires strategy inside of a Naya shell. Ben, Kibler, Michael Jacob, and Matt Sperling all decided that they would get the best results with the following deck that they eventually arrived at:

Meanwhile Gab, Mark, Dave, and I ended up rocking the following control deck:

Finally, Paul surprised no one with his decision to run Affinity for the 17th consecutive event (including what he said was his first lost in a sanctioned event before taking a turn, when his Merfolk opponent played turn 1 Chrome Mox plus Kataki, War’s Wage).

During the weeks of testing for the event, Kibler was making deck after deck with Baneslayer Angel, with Herberholz and I giving him a hard time about it, since Extended seemed like such an eminently unfair format and Baneslayer is so unreal terrible against unfair decks. Kibler would maintain how good it was for him in testing, and we would inevitably play, where it would not matter if I beat him with Martyr, Hivepact, Dredge, Thopter-Sword, Reanimator, Dark Depths, or anything else, he would just keep losing and his Baneslayers would keep looking awful.

Weeks passed. Kibler gave up on his Baneslayer decks. Mark, Gab, and I were looking for sideboard options for our Gifts deck, eventually realizing that Kibler’s advice to consider Baneslayer as a sideboard option was actually our best bet. It was with much laughter that we eventually broke the news to Kibler that we had come to use the Baneslayer ourselves. Not to be outdone, Kibler heavily encouraged Ben to re-explore the Baneslayer in the new Punishing Naya deck that he had built, and what do you know? We all ended up Baneslaying (except those of us that played Springleaf Drum).

Anyway, the moral of the story? Kibler was right about Baneslayer in Extended. The card is nothing like Wild Nacatl; it is just that it turned out to be the right kind of good, as it plus Punishing Fire gives you a trump plan to fair decks, so that the rest of your deck can be focused on being a strong aggressive deck that is very consistent, with some unexpected hoser cards in the sideboard to help win back percentage against unfair decks.

Ben’s Punishing Naya turned out to be the best performing deck of the tournament, and one of the best of all time, with a combined record of 30-6 (not counting the intentional draw and the bye that the pilots had). That is pretty unbelievable. I mean, 83% is just off the charts. To put things in perspective, Nassif, Heezy, Finkel, Williams, Maher, and I had a combined record of 26-9 with Mono-Red Dragonstorm.

What does this tell us? All jokes aside (such as how people who played Rubin Naya combined for a record of 6-14 in Zendikar Booster Draft…), it tells us that this build of Naya was truly exceptional, and it will redefine the format once 20-30% of the field switches to this style.

With Worlds mere weeks away, the impact that Rubin Naya will have on the format is going to be huge. How will people adjust? It is hard to say for sure, as people were already trying to beat Naya and now so many of their weapons won’t be nearly as effective. For instance, Engineered Explosives isn’t even good against this build, as opposed to being a game-breaker like it can be versus more traditional builds. Kitchen Finks? Firespout? Umezawa’s Jitte? Threads of Disloyalty? All of these cards, which are traditionally among the very best against Zoo, are much weaker against Rubin Naya than previous Naya decks.

Should you consider playing Rubin Naya? Absolutely. If a Zoo style is what you are looking for, this build is cutting edge, and it’s a fantastic choice even now that it is known. Unlike Mono-Red Dragonstorm, this deck is not just a potent metagame choice, as it has a strong consistent base-line strategy.

Does this mean you HAVE to play it? Absolutely not. First of all, there are no Extended PTQs until after Worlds anyway, so it is not like most people will be in a rush. Still, if you are playing some Extended in the near future, fear not, it can be beaten.

What are Rubin Naya’s bad match-ups? Obviously it is hard to tell from the results in this event, but from talking with the pilots, it would appear that their worst match-up might be Dredge, as the testing for the Top 8 possible match-up of Dredge was going very rough for Kibler (let’s just say he definitely was very happy to face Naya instead). The lack of Graveyard hate leaves him relying very heavily on Meddling Mage for Dread Return, which does nothing to stop Drowned Rusalka from generating an army of Bridge tokens, which is usually going to be too much for even Baneslayer to race.

In addition, Kibler’s only loss in Extended was to the same Hypergenesis list that he faced in the quarterfinals, piloted by Evangelos Papatsarouchas, which appeared to be a very challenging match-up. Meddling Mage, Ghost Quarter, and Blood Moon can be very effective, but Firespouts main seems to be the way of the future, and a single basic Forest (and 4 Misty Rainforest) would go a LONG way towards making the Hypergenesis deck nearly immune to both Ghost Quarter and Blood Moon. For instance:

This is, of course, just Evangelos’ deck with a different attempt at the manabase, adjusting for Rubin Naya. I would like to add that I think this build was actually very clever and featured several nice advances in Hypergenesis technology. First of all, the addition of Thirsts and Firespouts give the deck a lot more game when it isn’t “already winning.” The space used means that there are fewer “monsters” than in many builds of Hypergenesis (17 as opposed to the usual 20 or 21), but this is made up for with bigger, heavier-hitting monsters, such as Progenitus and Sundering Titan. Evangelos’s build may not win the turn he casts Hypergenesis, but most people are not going to be able to beat the board he creates, especially when you factor in the possibility of mana denial from the Titan and Angels.

The biggest drawback of a mana build like this is the possibility of crippling your own manabase with your Sundering Titan, but usually, if you are Sundering, you are winning. It needs to be tested to be known for sure just how relevant this is.

How did Gab, Mark, Dave, and I do? Dave made Day 2, but Gab, Mark, and I did not. It was not that the deck did not perform as we would have liked, as none of us had any complaints about the Gifts deck we played. In fact, looking back, I am quite confident that our deck was one of the best in the tournament. The problem was most definitely the pilots, as Gab, Mark, and I punted match after match, with all of us playing quite poorly. One might argue that the deck is exceptionally difficult to pilot, but it did not appear to be beyond our range in testing, though I personally think the biggest mistake was not being more diligent about ensuring that we actually got some enough sleep the night before the tournament, breakfast, and so on.

To spend weeks and months preparing for an event only to punt it away from the get go on account of not taking care of the intangibles, that is hard, no question. It feels like such a waste, and such an amateur mistake. The tournament is over now, and while I was very pleased with our preparation process and I think we arrived at the best versions of each of the decks we were considering, I for one am going to try making an adjustment to my strategy with regards to preparing myself physically and mentally. There is a time for work and a time for play, and for Worlds next month, I am going to try going to greater lengths to focus on the task at hand in the days leading up the event.

For those interested in trying out the Punishing Gifts deck we came up with, here are some tips:

The typical Gifts Pile is Thopter Foundry, Sword of the Meek, Academy Ruins, and Life from the Loam, as this ensures that you will eventually get the Thopter-Sword combo going (which lets you continually sacrifice the Sword of the Meek to convert mana into both 1/1 fliers and life). It should be noted that one possible improvement is to replace the Life from the Loam with Ritual of Restoration.

This offers a much less powerful endgame, especially against B/G decks (and Loam plus Ghost Quarter, Academy Ruins, Tolaria West, and Fetchlands is sweet), but the Ritual is much faster since the slowest pile they can give you is Sword plus Ruins. In addition, sometimes Ritual on Engineered Explosives can get you were you need to be.

The thing is, with all of these Groves, Green is a pretty easy splash and Loam makes it easier to set up Punishing Groves or beat attrition decks.

It is very easy to play around graveyard hate. For instance, if your opponent Crypts you or Relics you, just tap another Grove and return your Punishing Fire to your hand. As long as you keep one Grove untapped for each Graveyard hate card, you are fine. In fact, even if your opponent Extirpates your Punishing Fires, you can just tap Grove of the Burnwillows to return it to your hand and fizzle their spell.

That’s right… even if your opponent plays Extirpate, the split-second spell, you can just tap your Grove of the Burnwillows (mana abilities are not stopped by split second) which sets up a trigger that you can pay (triggered abilities are also not stopped by split second). It is actually the same situation as when your opponent Extirpates you and you have Counterbalance in play. You may not be able to activate Sensei’s Divining Top (Activated Ability) but you definitely trigger Counterbalance (Triggered Ability).

We were speculating on how often this would come up during the event, with me arguing that it would more than once. I don’t know about everyone else, but I know that Nassif made this play against both of his first two opponents!

When you are trying to Punish someone out, remember, if you have two Punishing Fires, you can actually do damage most efficiently by shooting your opponent with both, then tapping a Grove and a Steam Vents (or other non-Grove source) to get both back. Whereas one Punishing Fires converts each Grove plus 1R into 1 net damage to your opponent each turn, two Punishing Fires converts each Grove plus 2RRR into 3 net damage. You are not always going to have such an abundant supply of Red mana, but if you should happen to have this, make sure to think through the use of it to make sure you are using it most advantageously.

Make sure to take advantage of Punishing Fires if your opponent should happen to play a card like Kitchen Finks, Thopter Foundry, Umezawa’s Jitte, and so on. In fact, we talked seriously about using Condemn on account of its strength against Zoo, and it even has the backdoor combo with Punishing Fires, which is worth more than zero.

This is an important deck to “spice up,” as your opponent can gain a fair amount of edge against you if they know your exact list. As this list is the exact list that your opponents will probably expect should they face you, it is advised that you change some cards around, particularly the counter magic.

Will I be playing Gifts again in Rome? It is hard to say, but the odds are no. This is only because I am not particularly attached to this build, and there are so many more possible decks that do not contain Gifts than decks that do, I would say it is more likely that I will end up not playing it. Still, I will be testing it, and it is an option.

Right now, I am just getting into testing Standard. So far, from my first day of testing with Gab, the format seems to be exactly what it looked like before: Bloodbraid Elf, Cruel Ultimatum, and 1000 cards that are not as good as Bloodbraid Elf and Cruel Ultimatum. The format is all Jund and Aggro you say? No Cruel Ultimatums in the Top 8 of the SCG Tour® nament just past? Well, we will see how things turn out, won’t we?

Remember when White Weenie was the best deck in Time Spiral Block, not Teachings? What? What is that, you say? White Weenie was not really the best, and it was possible to build a good control deck in that format, but it just took masters like Wafo-tapa and Herberholz? You don’t say…

There is no question the permission is pretty awful right now, and the card draw leaves much to be desired, but in my opinion the format is not the mess that people seem to currently imagine it to be, a wasteland where good draft decks get beat up by Jund over and over (because honestly, do you expect your Vampire deck to defeat Jund?).

I gotta say, that R/W Aggro deck, the Boros Bushwhacker or whatever it is… that deck is sweet. I don’t think it is where you really want to be four four weeks from now, but it is surprisingly advanced on a technological level, with an extraordinarily fast and aggressive curve, great use of the Kor Skyfisher, and Ranger of Eos for Bushwhackers providing Overruns on demand. That deck actually looks pretty exciting, those most likely beatable by a control player that sets their mind to it. The key from a control player’s perspective is finding the Plumeveil.

How can we replace Plumeveil and what Plumeveil did for us? That is the real puzzle.

Before I depart for the week, I would like to make a few observations about this Limited format. I recently wrote about Zendikar in Limited here, but now that I have the benefit of over 30 Zendikar drafts, I have come to realize much more about the format, particularly since some of the strategies that I liked are not effective when the drafters are strong.

At this point, I am always aggro, with a strong push towards Red aggro. My archetype order is pretty much:

1. Mono-R Aggro
2. R/B Aggro
3. Mono-B Aggro
4. R/W or R/U Aggro
5. U/B or U/W or Mono-U or Mono-W Aggro

I do not play Green in this format, and would pick Goblin Shortcutter over Rampaging Baloth in the GP (although in a team draft, I would probably pick the Baloth for my sideboard and cut Red hard).

Red is just so deep and doesn’t really have any bad cards at all. If you just focus on keeping your deck aggressive, there is very little risk of not getting enough solid cards, even if you have to fight for the color. Usually the only reason I ever end up with a non-Red deck is on account of Marsh Casualties, or someone passing me amazing Bombs in other non-Green colors.

In fact, I force Red/X aggro so hard, I pick Burst Lightning over Sphinx of Lost Truth, as it is one of the absolute best cards in the archetype, easily splashable if I change plans, and it helps push my neighbor into my third favorite color, as I now like the colors in this order:

Zendikar Color Order
1. Red
2. Black
3. Blue
4. White
5. Purple
6. Pink
7. Grey
8. Silver
9. Orange
15,999,999. Yellow
16,000,000. Green

Token story of adventures in Austin at night:

At the risk of being one of those articles where someone bombs out of a tournament and just writes about their misadventure party around town, I will share one story.

My cousin Madonna (who is a teacher that lives in Austin) and I were wandering the streets of Austin, looking for where the action was at Friday night, when we couldn’t help but notice the people in front of us in line. Madonna remarked that she thought the guy in front of us was an old friend of hers. This was funny to me, as I realized that she was pointing to Gabriel Nassif.

We merged parties with Gab, Heezy, Sperling, and Burdick, and took over this establishment known as the Beauty Bar. We danced for hours, eventually leading to the owner coming over, opening up and removing a wall so as to better display the amazing dancers he was fortunate enough to have on display that night. It is crazy to me that Evan Erwin doesn’t have any footage of Nassif dancing, but that guy can tear it up. Plus, there is little doubt in my mind that Dan Burdick could have been a pop star in another life.

As much fun as that was, though, it was not until the following night when I left with Heezy, Paul Rietzl, Madonna, and Madonna’s roommate, the Karaoke party in Korea town with Lan D Ho and friends to return to Sixth Street (which is apparently the happening place in Austin).

We returned to the Beauty Bar, and with a vengeance. This time, Paul and Mark decided to start the night off by handing me $100 bill and asking me to buy $100 worth of beers and shots and mix drinks to bring back to our group (which at that point was the five of us). Let’s just say that convincing a bartender to give you 20 drinks all by yourself… it is not as easy as you might think, especially when the bartender is having trouble taking you seriously because of the, how shall we say, “unusual look” that you are rocking tonight at the club (all I can say is check out the Magic Show…).

We start dancing again, and I must admit, I was a bit surprised. Mark and Paul try to play like they are the types of guys that can’t dance, but they both have some moves, and we had a ton of fun raising the energy level throughout the night. At one point we were just moving around from place to place in the club, and each time we would go somewhere, within 10 minutes, that part would fill up with people, all a part of what we were doing.

Unfortunately, 2am came eventually, and we had to leave the club. We considered looking for some after-hour party, but as the women had to wake up at 7am, we had to part ways. Mark, Paul, and I began looking for our next destination when we came upon an unruly street mob. A number of parties and clubs had all let out relatively recently, and the streets were filled with about four hundred aspiring rioters. There were at least 20 cops in the vicinity, but there was little chance of them being able to contain this frenzied crowd.

The air was thick, a tension that you could feel with every breath. The vibe was unmistakable, as Mark wanted to leave and Paul wanted to find out what was about to happen. All of a sudden, a ripped man that looked like Wesley Snipes (except 12 inches taller and 100 lbs heavier) tore off his shirt and ran towards another guy, hitting him in the face with his fist so hard that it literally sounded like a thunderclap.

The smacked man flew several feet backwards, hitting a brick wall, and his posse leapt into action. A melee erupted, and everyone started running around, screaming like crazy people. People began throwing things, fists were flying, and it was obvious that this ship was going down.

Paul’s reaction was (amusingly) to run to the center of the storm and try to find a way to be a part of what was going on. During a lull in the action, he ended up talking with representatives from both factions. My God, that man was born to be a negotiator.

Heezy disappeared so fast that we did not see him leave. I stayed with Paul, trying to make sure he did not get himself killed, as I was not nearly as intoxicated as he was. As it turns out, Paul was more than aptly equipped, as he had the blessing of both sides by the end of the night. Mark ended up being fine as well, with us eventually getting a call from him letting us know that he was waiting for us safely away from the scene.

Regardless, I am going to get back to testing Standard with Gab and MJ. This week I have the good fortune to be hanging out in Florida with Kitt and Megan Holland as they entertain the three of us, as well as the inestimable Liz Lempicki. This weekend I will be competing in Grand Prix: Tampa, and hopefully I will get to see many you guys there.

One last thing I want to try before I leave…

Congratulations again, Brian Kibler (and Ben Rubin!) Let’s do it again in Rome!

See you guys next week, when we start to really take a look how to prepare for State Championships that take place after Worlds instead of before.

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”